I was always taught that a good writer takes a complex topic and reduces it to its most essential elements. Working at the Independent, I’ve learned that a good editor takes that and reduces it even more. For me, the hallmark of good writing is clarity and conciseness.
Maybe that’s why I’ve always found issues of identity to be challenging. While we try to reduce it to terms, or honor it with pronouns, identity is unavoidably messy and emotionally complicated.
I recently started using what are called she/they pronouns. This means the following pronouns apply to me, interchangeably: she, her, hers and they, them, theirs. In fact, I like switching back and forth. I feel good about this decision. But still, deep down, the editor in me is skeptical.
Last week, Steven Thomas Oney wrote in a thought-provoking letter to the editor that he worries plural pronouns, when used for individuals, are so confusing that they stop readers in their tracks. But I don’t find the use of “they” in the singular to be confusing.
That use of “they” is actually very common in vernacular speech. For example: “Someone left their umbrella. I hope they come get it.” We use it when describing a person about whom little is known. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this usage dates back to the 14th century.
The existence of singular they is the very reason non-binary people use it. We’re trying to make your life easier. Though people are creating new pronouns — ze, hir, hirs are examples — people generally find these harder to use. Adopting them is closer to learning a new language.
No, the reason I feel skeptical is that using two sets of pronouns feels inconsistent. Perhaps I should just choose between using she and using they. Do I use them in the same sentence? The same conversation? The editor in me wants to make rules. I want a style sheet.
Here’s my attempt, for now. Both sets of pronouns — she, her, hers and they, them, theirs — describe me. In fact, they describe me better together than on their own. My gender is fluid. Therefore, it is fundamentally unconfined, and perhaps even contradictory.
Using one set of pronouns over the other would not only be inaccurate — it would be self-deceptive. But, at the same time, no two- or three- or four-letter word can fully encompass my identity. So why bother?
This is where my job helps me. Maybe the daily grind of editing sounds insignificant. What difference does a comma make? But working at the Independent has made me realize that the seemingly small quirks of language can have big ramifications.
Misspelling someone’s name can hurt their feelings. Capitalizing Black when referring to a person says a lot about reclaiming a word, about respect, and about the history of a people.
Ultimately, using these pronouns makes me feel understood. Isn’t that what good writing — and editing — is all about?